A good chef is nothing without a sharp knife. And for the past century, one Italian clan has had the job of keeping them on the cutting edge. Clare Longrigg puts her nose to the grindstone

In a noisy plant in south London, Modesto Nella, 69, stands at his machine, his face a mask of concentration. Greasy water drips on to the wheel. He holds a meat cleaver in both hands, his fingers splayed along the blade. Sparks shoot out as he runs the blade across the stone twice, then tests the edge expertly with his fingertips.

In a noisy plant in south London, Modesto Nella, 69, stands at his machine, his face a mask of concentration. Greasy water drips on to the wheel. He holds a meat cleaver in both hands, his fingers splayed along the blade. Sparks shoot out as he runs the blade across the stone twice, then tests the edge expertly with his fingertips.

Modesto's hair and neatly trimmed moustache have gone nearly white in the service of the family business - sharpening knives at the grindstone. He came to London in 1959 as a young man of 22, and moved into the heart of his extended Italian family in Brockley. The family is so close that after over four decades here, he still speaks almost no English. These days the plant has several industrial grinding machines, but Modesto still uses the traditional method, and his job is to sharpen the specialist knives by hand.

Today the family firm, the Nella Brothers, is run by his nephew Marco, 38, and his brother Emilio, 42, and they sharpen knives for Italian delis and restaurants across the capital. Carluccio's, I Camisa and Topo Gigio all rely on the Nellas to give them their sharp edge. Not that they discriminate: the Nellas' 12,000 customers also include Tesco and Pizza Express. Every week they collect 40,000 knives, blunt and encrusted with dried flesh, from butchers' shops and restaurants all over the country and bring them back to Hither Green. Here, they are sorted, graded and sharpened, before being sent back out to do battle with gristle, fibre and bone.

Marco, a tall, wiry man, holds up his hands, which are covered in diagonal scars. "Every knife sharpener is covered in these," he says. "They're the scars of the trade." Modesto's hands are also rough and calloused, with deep crevasses. "His hands are so hard, when he cuts himself they don't bleed," says Marco. Modesto takes a vicious- looking four-edged mincing blade and puts one of its edges to the grindstone. As a shower of sparks flies up, his fingers look perilously close to the searing metal edge. Marco recalls the time he tripped in the back of the van and put his foot on a knife. "I learnt a lot of respect for knives after that," he says.

The Nella Brothers' massive turnover started with just one man wheeling his knife grinder, or mola, through the streets of south London. Marco's great-grandfather, Emilio Nella, was born in the northern Italian mountain region of Alto Adige in 1880, in the poor and isolated village of Carisolo. At the age of 21, he put his knife grinder on a wooden barrow, and set off in search of a better life. Emilio walked the whole way across Europe, sharpening knives as he went, and finally, after a year, arrived in sunny Deptford. From his south London base, he walked from one butcher's shop to the next, sharpening knives over an increasingly wide area. "It was a hard graft in the early stages," says Marco, "but they were hard people in those days. The people from that valley were really determined, when they set their mind to something... my grandad was a stern guy. You didn't mess with him."

Emilio's son Camillo took over the business, which progressed first from a barrow to horse and cart, and then to vans. In the 1960s, it was Emilio's grandson Pierfranco who realised he could get through a lot more tempered steel if he had drivers bringing the knives back to the workshop. Customers would rent sharp knives and have them replaced, weekly or fortnightly. Restaurants could empty their drawers of 20 or 30 knives too blunt to use, and replace them with the essential six or seven, always sharp, for 40p a knife. These days Marco and his brother charge £1.50 a knife and they'll teach the staff to use a steel if need be. On Wednesdays, Emilio collects personal knives from the swankiest kitchens: chefs in Park Lane hotels, who issue him with instructions as to exactly how they like their blades. A knife is the most important piece of kit in a chef's armoury, it has to be right. Back at the plant, Emilio and his uncle sharpen these ones by hand.

Most of the sharpening is done at hollow grinding machines, where workers stand, their first two fingers wrapped in protective tape, and plunge the knife between two wheels until it smokes. It's a skilled job. If they burn it, the temper in the steel will be ruined.

With all these trays stacked up, from vegetable paring knives to 19in kebab knives, the plant represents an impressive arsenal. There is security at the warehouse, but Marco has never had any trouble with the vans. "At least we don't have to worry about them getting mugged," he says with a laugh.

Marco shows us the workshop where Modesto and another old timer, Donato Camicia, sharpen garden tools by hand. Donato, who worked for Marco's grandfather, is 74, but still has an eye for the ladies, judging by the calendars on the walls. "He's from Naples," says Marco apologetically. "He's like the furniture. He doesn't want to retire. He says he needs the pocket money."

The brothers have expanded the business, they now make their own knives and also sell cutting equipment to butchers: gleaming steel slicing, cutting and grinding machines. In a corner of the warehouse, between boxes of band saws, we find great-grandfather Emilio's old wooden barrow, looking a little battered. It still has the original sandstone wheel, and the leather strap to turn it, operated by a foot pedal. It's a legendary piece of equipment. After Emilio's success, the whole village started in the same business, built their own grindstones and set off for all corners of the world. In the village, there is now a bronze statue of Emilio at his grindstone. Life has, inevitably, moved on. "I used to have it in my showroom," says Marco, "but I took it out to make space for the machines."

For more information, visit www.nellacut.com

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